Action without verbs | Daily News


Action without verbs

In a previous essay I looked at the use of grammar in the recent work of Garth Greenwell, arguing that Greenwell’s employment of specific grammars are utilized for the purposes of meaning-making. In this essay I will be turning toward a different contemporary author whose style similarly benefits from close attention, but who employs that style in ways that differ significantly from Greenwell.

Lauren Groff’s most recent book, Florida, is a collection of stories the original publication dates of which straddle that of her most well-known novel, 2015’s Fates and Furies. As a result of this, we are able to see, in a single volume, something of the shifts Groff is capable of in her work, tonal subtleties which display a mastery of sentence-level craft and which place her work, to my mind, alongside that of similar masters of subtlety, loneliness, and grace, among them Mavis Gallant, Shirley Hazzard, and Jean Stafford. Take, for example, what Groff does with the openings of two separate stories collected in this volume. First from her Best American Short Stories-included “For the God of Love, for the Love of God”:

Stone house down a gully of grapevines. Under the roof, a great pale room.

And now the opening sentence of the volume’s final story, “Yport”:

The mother decides to take her two young sons to France for August.

These two openings well represent the breathtaking swing of Groff’s style during this period: the strange rootlessness of the first example and the steady statement of situation in the second. As with all the stories collected in Florida, both of these are stunning in their ability to create motion out of somewhat sparse parts where what is at stake for the characters is often slippery to define.

“For the God of Love, for the Love of God” is a prime example of this, a story in which, as a bad critic might say, “nothing really happens” and yet which carries its readers so subtly that one is left dazzled and confused, the story’s rural French landscape rendered in brushstrokes that feel both partial and impossibly complete. Even in the opening passage quote above—those two sentences!—we are afforded a sense of being unseated, not by the characters, for we do not even know the characters yet, but by the landscape itself. Here it is again:

Stone house down a gully of grapevines. Under the roof, a great pale room.

Grammarians might note the lack of verbs in both sentences or the fact that, verbless, these are not technically sentences at all but fragments (the boldness of beginning a story with such a move!). And yet these two fragments contain within them a sense of action and movement even if one cannot point to a specific verb.

In order to understand how Groff accomplishes this, we must first remind ourselves of the definition of the grammatical unit known as a preposition. A preposition is a word that generally shows direction, location, or time (there are other uses but I’m simplifying things here), for example: at, about, under, over, past, since, toward, and so on. Prepositions are followed by a group of words that form its object, hence a “prepositional phrase,” for example: at 12 o’clock, about the town, under the table, over the hill, and so on. The purpose of a prepositional phrase is to modify a noun that appears somewhere else in the sentence. You might think of the phrase, then, as a kind of adjective that points to a noun, offering some additional information about it that the reader did not otherwise know.

It might also be noted here that employing a prepositional phrase sets up a direct expectation for the reader, since the introduction of a preposition asks for the phrase that follows. I will meet you at… or My keys are under… or I’ve been waiting here since… In these examples, we are left wondering what time we’ll meet, what my keys are under, or how long I’ve been waiting, which is simply a way to underscore the grammatical relationship between the introduction of a preposition and the noun that will complete the structure of its required phrase. Remember as well, the complete prepositional phrase is always related to a noun, noun phrase, or pronoun in the same sentence. By way of an exceedingly simple example, in My keys are under the table, the prepositional phrase offers the reader information about the specific location of my keys.

Now let’s return to the opening two sentences of Groff’s “For the God of Love, for the Love of God,” and this time I’ve emphasized the prepositions in bold and the phrases in italics:

Stone house down a gully of grapevines. Under the roof, a great pale room. I made the claim earlier that these two fragments contain, despite their lack of verbs, a sense of action and motion. This is built into the very design of Groff’s careful implementation of prepositional grammar, particularly in the sense of reader expectation. The first sentence, after its clear statement of subject (Stone house) contains two such prepositional phrases, which, combined, mimic of kind of downward tumbling: down a gully and of grapevines. Once the reader reaches the first preposition (down) she is automatically shifted into a particular expectation that requires the completion of a noun (a gully), after which we are dropped onto a second preposition (of) which does much the same thing (grapevines).

Groff makes a similar move in the second sentence, but this time she reverses the order of the prepositional phrase and the noun to which it points, placing the prepositional phrase at the start of the sentence to serve dual purpose as an introductory phrase (which is why it’s set off by a comma). One might return to the notion of tumbling downhill as introduced in the preceding sentence, for what Groff does after this initial preposition is to reach a kind of flat space, an angle of repose, at which point the reader can stop moving as we enter a great pale room.

Part of the effect of this can be located in the rhythm of these two sentences and how that rhythm further bears out its effect and meaning. Robert Hass reminds us that poetic scansion is idiosyncratically different for each reader, but this is how I read Groff’s rhythm (stresses italicized):

Stone house down | a gully of grapevines. | Under | the roof, | a great pale room.

I’ve broken the above into what I read as the sentence’s poetic feet—those units of poetic scansion, generally of two syllables, that form the basis of our close readings of verse. Note that I am also perhaps fudging the feet here in parsing out the first three stressed syllables as one foot (if you want the technical terms, this would be called a molossus but one could also read it as three monosyllables or as a spondee and one monosyllable; I’ll leave you to look that stuff up on your own).

-Lit Hub

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